By Sebastian Shukla and Jomana Karadsheh, CNN
Updated: Wed, 21 Jul 2021 06:55:21 GMT
In the central Syrian desert, an oil field has become a makeshift torture chamber. An unarmed man writhes in the dust, howling in pain. Four men in military fatigues pin him down and smash his hands and feet with a sledgehammer.
As he cries out for help, they taunt him in Russian, drowning out his agonized screams with laughter. In the background of the video, which was uploaded online, a nationalist Russian military song, "I am Russian special forces," plays.
The victim in this harrowing amateur video is Mohamad, a 31-year-old Syrian construction worker and father of four young children, who disappeared on his way home from a job in neighboring Lebanon in March 2017.
Mohamad's final words were those of the Shahada, a declaration of his Muslim faith.
The men who killed and decapitated Mohamad scrawled graffiti in Cyrillic on his lifeless chest. It said "for VDV and reconnaissance," a reference to the Russian airborne forces.
At least one of the men in the video has been identified by the independent investigative Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta as a mercenary from the shadowy Wagner group -- a private military outfit that has links to the Kremlin-connected oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as "Putin's chef" for his ties to the Russian President.
The Kremlin denies any connections to Wagner and insists that private military companies are illegal in Russia. Prigozhin has previously denied being connected to Wagner. Neither he nor anyone from his companies would talk to CNN in recent years despite multiple attempts seeking comment, including for this report.
"These people risk their lives and by and large this is also a contribution in fighting terrorism ... but this is not the Russian state, not the Russian army," said President Vladimir Putin in 2019.
CNN special report: Putin's private army
Russian forces have been operating in Syria since 2015, and there is substantial evidence to show that Wagner's presence in the country is connected to the Russian military deployment.
Analysts say it's inconceivable that Wagner would exist without Putin's approval. Indeed, its training camp in southern Russia is attached to a Russian special forces base.
Four years after Mohamad's murder, three NGOs from Syria, France and Russia filed a landmark legal case against Wagner for the role it allegedly played in the atrocity, as well as the perpetration of possible war crimes by the men seen in the video.
The lawsuit was filed in March on behalf of Mohamad's brother, Abdullah. It is the first time anyone has tried to hold a member of Wagner accountable for what rights groups say is a growing list of atrocities committed by the mercenaries, whose expanding global footprint has allowed Moscow to advance an off-the-books foreign policy in places like Syria, Ukraine, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique
Abdullah, a refugee who fled Syria in 2017, has never spoken publicly about his brother's killing before. He broke his silence in an exclusive interview with CNN, he says, to draw international attention to the tragedy that devastated his family.
To protect family members still living in regime-controlled areas of Syria, Abdullah requested that CNN conceal his full identity and the location of the interview.
"My brother is gone, he will never come back," Abdullah said. "I want the world to hear about my brother's case, so these criminals are held accountable."
Final phone calls to family
In one of Mohamad's last phone calls, in April 2017, he told Abdullah he had been detained by the regime as he crossed back into Syria, after working in Lebanon for about eight months. He said he had been taken to Damascus and forced to join the military, but that he planned to desert.
Ten days later, Mohamad called to say he was being sent to Homs the next day and that he would escape at night.
It was his last call to his family.
"He said, 'Give my best to my father and my mother, ask them to forgive me, I am going to do something, I am going to leave, I don't know if I will be able to get back to you or not,'" Abdullah recalled.
He said his brother had asked him to "take care of my wife," adding: "I am entrusting you with my family."
"It was that kind of talk, it was as if he knew something was going to happen to him," Abdullah explained.
Mohamad never met his youngest daughter.
With the Syrian civil war raging, and poor internet and phone connections in their remote village, it was hard for Mohamad's family to find out what had happened to him.
It wasn't until a video showing his torture emerged online months later that his loved ones discovered the true horror that had befallen him.
"One day a guy from our town sent me a video clip, he said: 'Watch the video, it could be your brother.' Of course, I recognized my brother -- from his clothes, his voice, his appearance," Abdullah said, his voice pained. "He was being tortured by soldiers, they were not Syrian, we did not understand what they were saying."
Abdullah told other family members about what he had seen in the video, but did not share it with them, fearing what it would do to their elderly parents.
"When I saw that first video, I still had hope he was still alive," he said. "He was being tortured, but he was alive, he was moving. We were hoping he was still alive and in a hospital."
Their father traveled to Damascus, searching for his son at hospitals and jails in the Syrian capital.
"About two months later, the second video emerged, that is when we believed our brother died," the softly spoken 27-year-old, now visibly distraught, told CNN.
"When I watched the second video [which showed Mohamad being beheaded], I stayed in a room ... I did not leave the room for three days. He was not only my older brother. He was my friend. We were always together," Abdullah said.
"My (other) brother developed kind of a psychological illness from the videos."
Landmark legal case
Wagner's forces have been used as the tip of the spear in Syria, but their shadowy presence affords Moscow a degree of deniability.
In February 2018, a US airstrike killed dozens and injured hundreds of Wagner fighters as they were advancing towards an oilfield outside the border town of Deir Ezzor.
Moscow did everything it could to distance itself from the incident, but when bodies of Russian mercenaries started to return home, it became clear it was a Wagner operation.
CNN spoke to a source connected to Wagner who had been to visit the injured fighters as they returned to Moscow. Moreover, in the days following the attack, one independent Russian media outlet went to visit the mother of a fighter who died in Syria, she confirmed that her son was not a Russian regular soldier.
Russia's foreign ministry would only say that these contractors were working independently and went to Syria on their own.
In Syria, the use of mercenaries is based around a company called Evro Polis, which was sanctioned by the US Treasury for being connected to Prigozhin. In February 2018, CNN obtained a copy of a contract between Evro Polis and the Syrian government. The agreement stated that Evro Polis gets to keep 25% of the revenue from the oil fields if they are recaptured from rebel territory. In other words, Wagner does the fighting, Evro Polis keeps the spoils.
Since Wagner's footprint has grown across the Middle East and Africa, a key launchpad has become the Russian military base at Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast. CNN and other researchers have monitored the frequency of flights originating from Latakia to other theaters across the region. One document obtained by CNN, details the agreement made between Yevgeny Prigozhin and a Russian airforce 223rd flight detachment to use their planes.
There is growing evidence to suggest that Mohamad's case may be just the tip of the iceberg.
A CNN investigation in June uncovered evidence that Russian mercenaries were committing war crimes and human rights abuses in the Central African Republic (CAR), according to several witnesses and community leaders.
The Russian government denied the allegations and insisted the contractors in CAR are "unarmed and do not take part in hostilities." The CAR government also denied the allegations but said an inquiry would establish the facts.
News of the legal action launched in March -- by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Memorial Human Rights Center in Russia -- coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Syrian uprising.
"The complaint ... is an unprecedented attempt to fill the impunity gap and bring Russian suspects to account," the advocacy groups said in a statement.
"Syrian activists and victims of the atrocities perpetrated by all parties to the conflict in Syria have been working tirelessly since 2011 to obtain accountability," they said, adding that: "There are limited avenues for victims and their families to obtain justice and redress."
The International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction in Syria, since the country is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, leaving countless victims of the conflict with few options to seek accountability.
In their pursuit of justice, Syrians are increasingly turning to European courts -- especially those in Germany and France -- under the concept of "universal jurisdiction."
It gives a national court jurisdiction over grave crimes against international law, even when they were not committed on the country's territory.
Earlier this year, a German court convicted a former Syrian officer for crimes against humanity, in the first-ever trial of people linked to the regime in Damascus. Another remains on trial.
Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer at FIDH, said they chose to file this case in Russia due to "the unique opportunity because of the strong legal basis to claim jurisdiction in Russia ... this is the natural court for this case."
"We are talking about Russian perpetrators, people who could potentially be arrested in Russia if there was a political and judicial willingness to push the case forward. Universal jurisdiction always has to be considered as a last resort," Bectarte added.
So far there has been no movement on the lawsuit filed by Abdullah in Moscow.
A similar request in 2019 by Novaya Gazeta to Russia's main investigative body -- the Investigative Committee -- to open a probe into its findings in Mohamad's case was dismissed.
Abdullah has never heard of Wagner. He says he just wants to see his brother's executioners held accountable.
"If someone hadn't given them the green light, they wouldn't have done something like that," he said. "We will not be like them and demand [that] what happened to my brother [also] happen to them, [but] the least they deserve is jail."
Abdullah says his brother's death has left him facing a series of challenges, from caring for Mohamad's wife and children to dealing with the trauma of the horrors he saw in those videos.
It has also led him on a long and potentially dangerous quest for justice against a shadowy, faceless enemy. But he believes it is worth the risk.
"I am not worried about myself," he said. "I just want them to be held accountable, even if this costs me my life."